You have to embrace change with innovation – that is why Liquid Telecom is Africa’s digital future, affirms the company’s head, Sam K. Nkusi. It is no false claim: Liquid Telecom is now the largest single fiber network in sub-Saharan Africa, with over 40,000km spanning a dozen countries and growing by over 60km every week. Mr Nkusi looks at Rwanda’s positioning as a vital component in connecting African countries to each other and to the rest of the world, and its belief that all internet-related value-added services must now be for everyone, from school kids in built-up areas to grandparents in rural villages.
What is the role of ICT in addressing the challenges Africa is still facing?
ICT as an enabler and cross-cutting sector can and indeed continues to immensely address the development challenges Africa needs for its socio–economic development.
ICT harnessing translates to contribution in GDP growth, facilitates competitiveness in products and services delivery. The role of ICT in agriculture, health, education and indeed for all the business, administrations and the entire citizenry is proven and cannot be over emphasized for Africa’s development.
What is your opinion about Rwanda’s ambitious goal to become the ICT hub of the region?
Rwanda to be an ICT hub is not an ambitious goal at all. It is achievable and just Rwandaful. It is recognizing the role of ICT for Rwanda’s strategic vision. Any country can be an ICT hub when it shares the vision, strategy and can walk the talk on timely implementation of what is required.
In Rwanda, we have the key advantage of the visionary digital and very broadband leadership of President Paul Kagame, as well as our geographical location at the heart of Africa that now facilitates “land-linking” of “ land-locked “ countries.
With respect to broadband connectivity, Rwanda being landlocked is at an advantage. There is full fiber connectivity from the sea via Mombasa, Nairobi, and Kampala to Kigali. We also have resilient and alternative connectivity from Kigali to Rusumo border onto Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. So now, whenever there is a fault on either route, services are not interrupted.
Eastern DRC is serviced through Rwanda, as is Burundi, and indeed we have full connectivity to Tunduma’s border with Zambia, on to Lubumbashi DRC and more other nations, with Liquid Telecom having the largest and reliable high capacity pan-African fiber network. Quadruple play, cloud and media services are now all enabled.
Policies have been put in place to facilitate business operations and reduce trade barriers. How would you describe the investment climate in Rwanda?
The overall investment climate is very conducive and inviting. This is even well noted in the World Bank doing business rankings where Rwanda is at the top and excels as well as in the improved economies in Africa. For more than a decade now in Rwanda, most of the ICT equipment attracts zero taxation and this has been conducive to the investors.
Liquid Telecom is a private company doing private investments. How are you assuring affordability?
When the government creates an enabling environment, business takes advantage of that. Liquid Telecom is addressing not only affordability but also the important aspect of access to the larger population. Internet bandwidth cost in Rwanda is now cheaper than anywhere in the region. Three years ago, the cost for one unit, one megabyte per second, was around $1,200. Today it is $26 for long-term whole buyers such as mobile companies. It is now 30 times faster and over 30 times cheaper. In neighboring countries it is around $300 and anywhere in Africa it costs more.
There are two ways of getting $100: you can either charge one person $100, or you can charge five people 40$ and get double the revenue. We aim our services for all the masses. You need access and affordability. We want every student, from high school to college to be connected. We want all the rural areas of farmers and health centers connected.
There are some people who think connectivity is not a priority. Even some hotels here have 50 rooms but buy 1MB. They have not understood that connectivity is today a key element for its clients. We must educate people so that it becomes part of the affordable services offered. It is changing a lot faster because the biggest driver is the youth. Liquid Telecom aims to serve an internet buffet for the satisfaction of all its customers.
In light of the upcoming digital revolution, Rwanda has decided to bank on its human capital. Could you please discuss the importance of developing the country’s digital skills?
With the rapid growth in ICT and Rwanda’s ambition to become an ICT hub, Rwanda needs to timely develop competent and highly skilled human resources to drive the ICT industry to the next level and take full advantage of the digital revolution and be able to effectively use ICTs to address the daily challenges of all Rwandans and develop the economy. Developing competent skills to address cyber security issues to ensure protection of data of users and businesses is equally important.
As former cabinet Minister for Infrastructure in charge of Energy and ICT, what is your assessment of Rwanda’s megaprojects, such as the KivuWatt and the Northern and Central Corridors?
These megaprojects will greatly enhance connectivity, reduce transportation costs and ameliorate our energy requirements. Rwanda, like many other countries in Africa, face energy challenges and Rwanda cannot achieve its goals without access to reliable and affordable electricity to power its industries and population needs in electricity. It is in these efforts that Rwanda embarked on the KivuWatt project, and other similar projects, to provide the energy needed to drive the country’s economy.
The Northern and Central Corridors are key infrastructure pillars for integration of countries in the East African region. The projects in infrastructure, including those of ICTs, transport, energy and others were initiated to facilitate the regional development. Results are already on the wall. Landlocked countries are now land linked, have access to the ports, and regional trade has improved and also increased.
Developing an entirely regionally included network would be a unique competitive advantage to Africa. How did this idea emerge?
The only constant in the ICT sector is change. The dynamic social and economic factors of Africa’s youthful population, and converting connectivity deficiency into business opportunities, were idea contributors for a true African company like Liquid Telecom with its leadership. For instance, routing calls through Europe when calling in a neighboring country only two kilometers away with related high call termination charges contributed to this inevitable change. This has offered the opportunity to build infrastructure in Africa to ensure that traffic stays in Africa and with reduced communication costs for all.
In Africa, we can leapfrog and launch the latest services as we had minimal infrastructure legacy problems and hence no resistance to change with related heavy capital investments. Adaptability to changes and people’s needs through innovation is a Liquid Telecom virtue. If you are a telecom company and you are now making most of your revenue from phone calls, what are you going to do in the future which is here today? Now there is WhatsApp, Skype and Viber, so what will you do? If you can’t change your model to lower how much voice-calls account for, you are immediately faced with ever-declining revenues.
You have to embrace change with innovation. That is why Liquid Telecom is Africa’s digital future. We are also currently building a submarine cable – Liquid Sea – that will serve Africa for the next 25 years. We have invested in value-added services and fully connected to the globe.
What social components of this upcoming digital revolution would you like highlight?
Rwanda is a good example when it comes to the use of ICTs to change lives. For example, through platforms like “Irembo”, the population can get public services online and they no longer have to queue to the local government offices and spend hours on the road and at the offices to get service. This could not be achieved without ICT infrastructure in place and investment private companies made to make this happen.
I would like to highlight that countries can take full advantage of the opportunities of the digital revolution if the solutions they deploy are customized to address the challenges and needs of the population. The Internet of Things (IOT), quadruple play with voice, video, data, and all internet-related value-added services must now be for all, including my grandmother in the rural village.
Liquid Telecom has built the largest telecom network in East Africa. You are currently engaging in another project called Liquid Sea to connect via subsea cable with the Middle East and with Europe. Could you further discuss this effort to connect Africa to the World’s economies?
In fact Liquid Telecom is now the largest single fiber network in sub-Saharan Africa not only in Eastern Africa. We have over 40,000km spanning a dozen countries and growing by over 60 kilometers every week.
It is very important for Africa to be connected to Africa and then to the rest of the World. Africa must ensure that it is its own largest trading partner before looking else where as there are still plenty untapped intra Africa trade opportunities. Non-tariff barriers, such as rights of ways in territorial waters manned by coastal nations, and related delays in landing permits, should be removed for one Africa. How do you cross and serve the whole of Africa when there are such problems further compounded with insecurity across the different regions with different border crossing? We should only be addressing the issue of attracting finance and technology for development.
Fortunately, Africa’s leadership is now tackling these policies that will facilitate it., from the recently announced one Africa passport to the cancelling of visa requirements with the resulting free movement of people and goods.
Liquid Telecom’s fiber network interconnectivity in African nations and the Liquid Sea Submarine Cable project will enshrine Africa’s role in the world economy.
What is your assessment of the attractiveness the African continent is having lately, especially regarding FDI inflows?
While the overall global economy is slowing, Africa shows positive economic growth due to policies and economic reforms countries have made in the last decade. In Rwanda alone, and as indicated in the Foreign Private Capital report from the National Bank of Rwanda, foreign direct inflows doubled between 2013 and 2014. We observe the same positive trend in other African nations.
Africa was left behind for many generations. If you look at Africa now, the average age of its population is under 35. If you relate the needs of that youthful age with the current deficiencies, you realize the incredible opportunities. The advance in technology gives us incredible opportunities. There is no reason today that something launched in the US couldn’t be launched in Rwanda or anywhere in Africa at the same time or even earlier. We have the opportunity to leapfrog. We have the population in need. We do not have legacy issues.